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  • Writer's pictureJenni Foshey

My Experience in West-African Dance

My freshman year of college I decided to take an African Dance class offered at my school, UW-Madison. Such a good decision I made. I loved it so much, I’m currently taking it again as a sophomore!


The class at my school is called African Dance, but the dances taught are strictly from West Africa, mainly from Guinea and some from Mali. The name of this class in itself can be a social/political issue because too common is the continent of Africa viewed as a whole. The title of this class does not take into account that Africa is a continent with many diverse countries. Sadly, Africa is viewed as a single place of poverty and primitive ways, which is simply not true at all. Having been to Tanzania (East Africa) and learning Guinean and Mali dance (West Africa) I can first hand support that African countries are so diverse and unique, just like every other country on Earth. 

Anyways, this dance class has taught me so much about different styles of dance as well as culture. My teacher is very experienced as she has went to Guinea multiple times to study dance. And in class we dance to LIVE music! In fact, one of the drummers is from Guinea which just adds to the dancing environment. Having live drummers is such an important part of the dance experience. My teacher would always say “you really build a connection with the drummers”- and she is so right. The pace of the music impacts how fast the dancers dance; likewise, the more energetic the dancers are, the more energetic the drummers will be! Everyone really works in harmony and it is so cool to experience. 


Within West African dance, there are of course many forms and styles. Some fast and full of fire, and others slow and sweet. Being a gymnast and cheerleader for most of my life, it was hard to adapt to a different technique of dance. I was used to sharp and tight movements and dancing to 8-counts. In West African dance, you dance to the beat of the drums and listen for something called the “break”. The break is a distinct point in the music that tells you when to change movements, speed, stop, and start. For beginners, the break can actually be quite hard to listen for, especially in faster paced music. It’s important, though, that if you mess up or miss the break, to relax and jump back in when you can.  

So, you may be wondering why I (a person of non-African descent) chose to take an African dance class. Well, the answer is quite simple. I have been fascinated by the way Africa has been portrayed in media since I was young- the safaris, wildlife, cultures, landscapes, and traditions. I have always wanted to learn more about Africa. As I grew older, I started to appreciate and learn about the difference between “Africa” and specific African countries. Especially as a conservation biologist, I am constantly aware of the biological diversity in each region and country, so diversity is always on my mind. Likewise, the people, traditions, and cultures vary. Another reason why I took this class is because I value diversity within human populations, and wanted to experience it in a class that was unfamiliar to me. I wanted to try something new. I wanted to be able to say I took an African Dance class. I wanted to meet other people in the class whom have all sorts of different backgrounds and values. I love that. This sense of diversity appreciation also applies to a reason I had for studying abroad in Tanzania. I wanted to experience the culture and learn new things by living there and being actively engaged- not just watching videos on social media or reading about it in a textbook for class. For me, having experiences is way more valuable than learning off of a PowerPoint presentation in a classroom.

If you are a student at UW-Madison, I highly recommend taking Dance118 (African Dance). You will learn so much and be so thankful that you did. Plus, you can take it as many times as you want! 


If you’re not a student, I still recommend taking any African Dance class if you have the opportunity. Just be mindful that the title “African” is such a generalized term. You should immediately question “well, what countries and regions are of focus in this class?” 

If you don’t want to participate at all, well that’s fine. BUT, you need to attend a performance if you can. You won’t regret it :) 


Send me a message if you have any questions! Be sure to follow me on all my social media  (linked on website)! 

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